The Windup Girl
By Paolo Bacigalupi
Published by Nightshade Books 2010
Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl has been the SF success of 2010. A bestseller, it has won many awards, including the Locas, Nebula, and Hugo (where it tied for Best Novel with China Miévilles’ The City & the City).
The story follows the classic SF tradition of extrapolating from current science and technology and creating a world in which the results are laid out for readers to examine. Foremost in this story are global warming, and the rise of ocean levels, the exhaustion of fossil fuels and the search for alternative energy sources, genetic manipulation, both to create new life forms and to create sterile seeds, the latter to force a dependency on corporations (already a reality), the vulnerability of crops, via global agro-business, and the ethics of creating human, or human-like, life forms.
The story takes place in a Thailand that has managed to stand up against the world’s many pressures and the maintain a hard fought independence. The principle characters are Anderson Lake, a “gene-ripper,” he poses as a businessman attempting to produce a source of alternative energy, kink springs, but is in fact an agent for an agro-business concern trying to breach the nation’s borders. His factory manager Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from Malaysia, where he barely escaped a genocidal uprising and lives in constant fear of another one. Jaidee, and his lieutenant Kanya, who represent the country’s fiercely protective Environment Ministry. Jaidee is famous for his zeal and his conscientiousness, though those very things prove to be not only his undoing, but the fulcrum on which everything turns.
Lastly, there is the windup girl herself, Emiko. In spite of being called a windup, and in spite of her sometimes mechanical looking movement, Emiko is a genetically designed, humanoid-like, tool. She was originally brought to the country from Japan to work as a secretary and translator. When her owner decided it would be cheaper to replace her than to transport her home, he abandoned her in a country that hates windups, viewing them as deviant and unnatural, and left her to her own devices. Ultimately she finds herself working in a sex club, where she is constantly humiliated and abused.
That’s quite a lot for a novel of barely 360 pages. Bacigalupi tells his story in a straight forward, chronological manner, only looking back to explain things when absolutely necessary. In theory its exactly the way I like my stories, but this book has so much happening that the reader barely gets a moment to absorb it all. I was almost a quarter of the way through before things really started to come together for me. Moreover, none of the characters are particularly engaging. Anderson, Hock Seng, and Kanya are all compromised, Jaidee is a zealot, though his heart is in the right place, and Emiko is all too passive. As the story progresses, characters and plot points do come together and the reader is given a lot to consider. Bacigalupi brings addresses a lot of things we see developing all around us, even if he seldom takes the time to let them breathe. I can see his novel casting a large shadow over the genre in the next decade.
A rewarding, if not always engrossing, read.